Gifts from the Enemy by Trudy Ludwig
with illustrations by Craig Orback
Based on From a Name to a Number: A Holocaust Survivor’s Autobiography
by Alter Wiener
(White Cloud Press, $16.95, Ages 8-12)
⭐︎Starred Review – Jewish Book Council
Trudy Ludwig recounts the true story of Holocaust survivor, Alter Wiener, using his voice as narrator. Though in picture book format, this introduction to the Holocaust and its inhumanity, is geared to middle grade students. An absolutely powerful tale, Gifts from the Enemy introduces Wiener like this:
“My name is Alter Wiener and I am an ordinary person with an extraordinary past.”
From that very first page, I found myself immediately drawn into the story. Written chronologically, and focusing first on Wiener’s childhood, the book describes his home town, Chrzanów, Poland. His family lived a good, but simple life and his home was “full of books, food, laughter, and love.” Orback’s muted colored artwork conveys the quaintness of this prewar city where most families owned no car and walked most everywhere.
The book depicts the Wiener’s religious beliefs subtly. By the third spread where the family is all together, we feel the warmth and welcoming nature of the household where Wiener’s Papa would usually invite “a poor student or homeless person to share the Sabbath dinner with us.”
Soon the mood and book’s colors change as Hilter’s German Nazi soldiers invade Poland on September 1, 1939. Tragically, Wiener’s world will never be the same again. Harsh restrictions are placed on Jewish people, but many families do not have the financial resources or connections to flee. The Nazis prove to be hate mongers. First they kill Wiener’s Papa when he was just 13. When he was 14 they took his brother away and when he was 15 it was his turn to be carted off. “I and many others were herded like cattle onto trains headed to destinations far, far way from kindness, compassion, respect and dignity.”
How Wiener endured the cruel hardships he encountered daily at prison labor camps is a miracle in itself, but the other miracle is that, out of all the hatred and suffering, an act of kindness materialized. A German factory worker, under risk of death, began leaving the starving young man a bread and cheese sandwich. She did this by hiding the sandwich and directing his attention to where she’d put it. This went on for 30 days, undetected! And rather than continue feeling hopeless, he now had hope. The generosity and kindness of a stranger gave Wiener the will to survive and reinforced his early belief that for every cruel person there is a good person, too. There are strong, courageous individuals everywhere, in war and in peace, and though this woman on the outside was the enemy, inside she was his salvation.
This poignantly told, remarkable story of one man’s journey to freedom is one we need to be reminded of again and again. In Wiener’s Afterword he explains how he gives presentations to countless groups, schools and organizations in order to “prevent another genocide from happening again.” Back matter also contains information about the Holocaust, some Vocabulary as well as Discussion Questions for families and schools in addition to Recommended Activities for Young Readers. Please add this to your must-read list and buy an extra copy for your child’s school so they, too, can benefit from the positive message that Gifts from the Enemy shares.
– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
Click here to read a review of The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig